Pink Socks and Jello
Shannon Lucid writes a letter home
Sunday, May 19
Here it is, another Sunday on Mir!!! And how, you might ask, do I know that it's Sunday? Easy!!! I have on my pink socks and Yuri, Yuri, and I have just finished sharing a bag of Jello!!!
When light follows darkness every 45 minutes, it is important that I have simple ways of marking the passage of time. The pink socks were found on STS-76 and Kevin, the commander, said that they were obviously put on as a surprise for me, so I took them with me over to Mir and decided to wear them on Sundays.
And the Jello? It is the greatest improvement in space flight since my first flight over ten years ago. When I found out that there was a refrigerator on board Mir, I asked the food folks at JSC if they could put Jello in a drink bag. Once aboard Mir, we could just add hot water, put the bag in the refrigerator and, later, have a great treat. Well, the food folks did just that and sent a variety of flavors with me to try out. We tried the Jello first as a special treat for Easter. It was so great that we decided the Mir-21- NASA 2 crew tradition would be to share a bag of Jello every Sunday night. (Every once in a while, Yuri will come up to me and say, "Isn't today Sunday?" and I will say "No, it's not. No Jello tonight!!!")
There have been a lot of changes here on Mir since I arrived. And no, the changes were not because I am here!!!
The first big change was the arrival of Priroda, the final segment that is to be added to Mir. This segment is called Priroda because that's the Russian word for nature and there are sensors on the outside of the segment to study the Earth. The US science equipment is located inside this segment.
As a graduate student years ago, I fantasized about having my own laboratory. I must admit, though, that in none of my fantasies was I gazing out the window of a space station watching "my laboratory" approach like a gigantic silver bullet moving in slow motion toward the station's heart!! Reality is indeed stranger than fiction!!!!
There had been a power problem on Priroda after its launch, so there was some concern about SO2 leaking from the batteries into the atmosphere. When it arrived, we had to wait and check out the air quality before opening the hatch. Yuri checked the air and pronounced it good. After listening to the hissing air as the atmospheric pressure was equalized between Priroda and Mir, the hatch was opened. And yes, it was a dramatic moment! There it was, all bright, shiny, and new.
The installed American glove box protruding into the aisle gave it a real "science" look. The bright orange cover on top of the glove box added a bit of color to the gray-blue and dusty-pink panels of the floor and walls. Station replacement parts and other equipment were bolted to the walls and ceiling. Just inside the hatch, on the first few floor panels, were bolted row after row of big orange and gray batteries, which were the power for Priroda on ascent. We had to start work almost immediately unbolting and bagging up the batteries because of the ground's concern about leaking SO2 into the atmosphere.
After a lot of work, the batteries on the floor were unbolted and I thought the job was complete. Then, Yuri opened a panel that revealed more rows of batteries to be unbolted. Another opened panel revealed yet more batteries; there were batteries without end!!! And each battery had to be unbolted, plastic caps had to be put on the four "feet" and on the connectors, and then each battery had to be bagged and tightly tied. Talk about a lot of work!!!! To even reach the batteries, some of the equipment had to be unbolted and the supporting metal framework taken apart.
So there the three of us were floating in Priroda surrounded by floating batteries, bagged batteries, equipment, and scrap metal. At times I thought that there was enough scrap metal floating there to build station Alpha!!! Periodically, free-floating metal pieces would impact each other creating clear metallic tones like cathedral bells in the module and we joked with each other about the "cosmic music" that we were hearing. We devised an assembly line to clean up the mess and got so efficient that we finished the task in one sixth of the time that the ground expected and earned ourselves a holiday.
The other big change, although it is not permanent, was the arrival of Progress, the resupply vehicle. Usually about every six weeks one is sent to Mir with food, equipment, clothes -- everything that, on Earth, you would have to go to the store and buy in order to live. Because it had deployed solar batteries, it was easier to spot while approaching the station than Priroda had been.
I saw it first. There were big thunderstorms out in the Atlantic, with a brilliant display of lightening like visual tom toms. The cities were strung out like Christmas lights along the coast -- and there was the Progress like a bright morning star skimming along the top!!! Suddenly, its brightness increased dramatically and Yuri said, "The engine just fired." Soon, it was close enough so that we could see the deployed solar arrays. To me, it looked like some alien insect headed straight toward us. All of a sudden I really did feel like I was in a "cosmic outpost" anxiously awaiting supplies --and really hoping that my family did remember to send me some books and candy!!!
Soon after it docked, the three of us began opening the hatch. When Yuri opened a small valve to equalize the pressure, we could smell the air that was in Progress. Yuri said, "Smell the fresh food." I will admit it was a fruit smell, but I though it smelled more like the first time you open your refrigerator after a two week vacation only to discover you had forgotten to clean out the vegetable compartment.
The first things we took out were our personal packages and, yes, I quickly peeked in to see if my family had remembered the books and candy I'd requested. Of course they had. Then we started to unpack. We found the fresh food and stopped right there for lunch. We had fresh tomatoes and onions; I never have had such a good lunch. For the next week we had fresh tomatoes three times a day. It was a sad meal when we ate the last ones!!!
After our impromptu lunch, we took the rest of the afternoon off, looking at our mail that was in the packages and enjoying the apples and oranges that were also on board. Yuri commented that for the first time all six of the docking ports were now occupied--a Guinness Book record!
Like I said, I had a wonderful bag of new books on Progress. My daughters had hand-selected each one, so I knew I'd enjoy them. I picked out one and rapidly read it. I came to the last page and the hero, who was being chased by an angry mob, escaped by stepping through a mirror. The end. Continued in Volume Two. And was there Volume Two in my book bag? No. Could I dash out to the bookstore? No. Talk about a feeling of total isolation and frustration!!!! You would never believe that grown children could totally frustrate you with their good intentions while you were in low earth orbit, but let me tell you, they certainly can. Suddenly, August and home seem a long way away!!!!